Saturday, 19 May 2018

Pyrrhonian Manoeuvers: Sense and Intellect


The senses and intellect, I maintain, are no more guides to reality than not.

Against the Senses

The senses are no more a guide to reality than not.

The reports of senses often contradict each other. For instance, I see the dandelion on my lawn as green and yellow whereas my dog sees it as black and white. It can't, however, be both coloured and black and white at the same time in the same respect. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether the pissenlit is really coloured or black and white12.

As another example, suppose that I'm at the British National Gallery approaching Berjon's Still Life with Flowers. From afar, it looks smooth and flat; from up close, it looks rough and textured. It can't, however, be both smooth and rough at the same time in the same respect. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether Still Life with Flowers is really smooth or rough3.

As a third example, Picasso's Portrait of Bibi la Purée appears smooth to the eye but rough to the touch. I should thus suspend judgment as to whether it's really smooth or rough. I should, for similar reasons, suspend judgment as to the nature of the entire sensible world and, correspondingly, as to the reliability of my senses' reports about reality.

Against the Intellect

But the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not either. (i) nihil est in intellectu quod non prius in sensu; hence (ii), the intellect relies on the senses as its guide to reality; (iii) the senses are no more a guide to reality than not; hence (iv), the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not.

(i) is the Aristotelian principle that nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. I have no argument for this principle, but it's plausible that even if there are things in the intellect not first in the senses the number of those things is piddling in breadth.

(ii) seems to follow from (i). For if there is nothing in the intellect that is not first in the senses, how could the intellect engage reality except by relying on the senses?

(iii) I've argued for, and so (iv) the intellect is no more a guide to reality than not. And so, the senses and intellect are no more guides to reality than not.

Διαφωνία

I've disputed whether the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality. Now, suppose an empiricist comes along to argue that the senses are reliable guides to reality. He will have to use his senses or intellect to judge that this is the case. If, however, he uses his senses, he will fall into circularity; and if he uses his intellect, he will have to justify intellect's reliability and then fall into circularity. And the same goes for anyone who tries prove that the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality. And so, it can't be proven that the senses or intellect are reliable guides to reality.

I've been adopting the stance of the ancient Pyrrhonist (and through him οἱ δογματικοί) for dialectical reasons. Now I must confess: I've been pulling your leg a little. I'm not actually so skeptical. In the following weeks, I'll be examining various skeptical arguments as well as the consequences of those arguments for our lives. I hope to present as formidable a case for both as I can.

Update 5-19-2018: There are more examples of contradictory perceptions in the combox.

1I've assumed the Pyrrhonian view that evidential equipose naturally results in suspension of judgment for simplicity of exposition (cf. Barnes's "The Beliefs of a Pyrrhonist"), and will discuss this move at greater length in a future post.
2Absent some reason for preferring my perceptions over my dog's.
3Absent some reason for preferring my distant perception of Still Life with Flowers to my near perception of it.

7 comments:

  1. “I should, for similar reasons, suspend judgment as to the nature of the entire sensible world”

    Could you give some examples using primary qualities?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hah. I was wondering whether someone would call me on this after pressing publish. Suppose I'm approaching an ancient tower. From afar, it looks round; from up close, it looks square. It can't, however, be both round and square. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether the tower is round or square.

      Suppose I'm walking around the inside of a baroque cathedral looking at the ceiling from different positions. From one position, the ceiling looks flat and two-dimensional; from another, it looks concave and three-dimensional. It can't, however, be both flat and concave at the same time in the same respect. I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether the ceiling is flat or concave.

      Suppose I'm walking around my dining room table keeping it steadily in view. From one perspective, it looks circular whereas, from another, it looks oval. But it can't be both circular and oval, and I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether it's circular or oval. I just happened to choose examples using secondary qualities. (Probably, it's a reflection of my views on the distinction between secondary and primary qualities, but that is a separate post.)

      Delete
    2. Interesting. This sounds like the snake/rope argument that Mahayana Buddhists often utilize. I am not the original anonymous that asked you the question btw.

      Delete
  2. Is the combox open for comments?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Would you say on the Pyrronhists' behalf that the senses are guides to reality in that the table cannot appear circular and ovular unless it is the table that so appears? The way you understand contradictory perceptions presupposes the existence of the subject of the contrary predicates. Do you take the perceiver to be aware of/committed to the existence of one and the same object?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would you say on the Pyrronhists' behalf that the senses are guides to reality in that the table cannot appear circular and ovular unless it is the table that so appears?

      This is a good point. As far my examples go, I'm allowing that the table exists (ad hominem, for dialectical reasons) and pushing for suspension of judgment as to its shape-property.

      The skeptic will point out that similar arguments can be raised against each of the table's other properties, distance and roughness, species and colour, until we're in epoche about all the table's properties. He might then ask: What is left of the table? If you try to bring in the substratum theory, he'll move on to argument forms appropriate to that level of discussion.

      The skeptic might then use these further argument forms to attack the distinction between essence and existence. Stay tuned for those.

      The way you understand contradictory perceptions presupposes the existence of the subject of the contrary predicates. Do you take the perceiver to be aware of/committed to the existence of one and the same object?

      This is also a good point. It could be that I'm perceiving distinct stages of a spacetime worm. Suppose then that there are two (quite similar) people observing the table from the relevant positions; by the same argument, mutatis mutandis, I should therefore suspend judgment as to whether the table-stages are circular or oval.

      Delete